Billy Bob Thornton has played his share of rascals of late, from a Bad Santa to a Scoundrel, but in the decade since winning his Oscar for writing the seminal Sling Blade, Thornton has played a disparate variety of characters in films that range in scope from Armageddon to A Simple Man.
In the Polish Brothers’ Astronaut Farmer, the versatile actor shines as an idealistic farmer who had quit the space program and now yearns to return to space in his own rocket, if government agencies don’t stop him. Always engaging, Thornton spoke to Paul Fischer.
Question: When I interviewed you for School for Scoundrels the best quote I got from you was that they’re releasing the Billy Bob Thornton asshole collection on DVD, so was it a refreshing change for you to go back to what you’ve done in the past and play somebody who was less asshole like?
Thornton: Yeah, the fact of the matter is that I’d done two or three of those comedies in a row since Bad Santa and it was fun and I enjoyed it but I think that’s plenty. I have the one coming out that I’ve made already called Mr Woodcock and I think that’s going to be probably it for at least a few years, you know, because you want to go and do other things. And I knew that I was going to do a drama next but I figured it was going to more like A Simple Plan or Sling Blade or something like that. I didn’t realise that I was going to get this gem sat in my lap and it’s the type of movie that I’ve wanted to do really since I was young. I think every actor wants to have their, like [to Virginia Madsen] for you probably the Barbara Stanwick or Rita Hayworth or whoever it is and for me it’s Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart or whatever and this was that movie for me. It was my Mr Smith Goes to Washington …
Question: Could you identify with the idealism of this character?
Thornton: Oh absolutely. I mean if anybody in the entertainment business or whatever, as an artist or a sports figure or anything like that, you know, you’re a dreamer by nature. And so we totally understood characters like this and it was a pretty easy fit really. A guy from Texas who’s part astronaut/part farmer. He’s a dreamer who’s kind of eccentric and lives in a small town in Texas.
Question: And you still found an opportunity to do a whole scene in the Karl voice.
Thornton: Well yeah. That’s all the extras. But I do that on every movie. On every movie – you never know when it’s going to be, it could be in the middle or it could be at the end but at some point I’m going to do that for the crew and they all expect it now so I have to do it.
Question: In Armageddon Bruce Willis is in the sky and you’re on the ground, so was this the reason you got him to do it because you wanted to flip those roles, or how do you get him in there?
Thornton: No it had nothing to do with Armageddon. And I know this sounds like I’m making it up but the truth is we didn’t even think about the Armageddon and Astronaut Farmer connection until he was down there and we were actually shooting. And we first talked about it when he was – the first scene we shot with him was the hearing with the FAA and all that. And we’d been up late. We had a great time. He came walking in in the blue suit, you know? And it was just like Keith David in Armageddon, the general. Bruce was wearing the same uniform that Keith David was, you know and it was like ‘Wait a minute’. And that’s how we started talking about that but the way the whole thing with Bruce happened is that they wanted a movie star for the part – for the cameo and they had a few guys on their list. It was a studio thing, not the boys, it was the studio. And they knew that I knew Bruce and I said ‘Well you know, I can call Bruce and see about him. What do you think?’ They said ‘Yeah call him up’. I did. He loved the script and said he’d love to come down and do it.
Question: It was a very nice, understated performance by him I think.
Thornton: Oh yeah he did great. He was terrific, really terrific.
Question: When you do a movie like this does it remind you of the kind of films that you liked when you were growing up? It was a very Frank Capra type film.
Thornton: Absolutely. That was part of the appeal really. Yeah. Totally.
Question: On the internet I read that you had said that you might do another Bad Santa movie. Is that true, that you would do another one?
Thornton: I haven’t heard anything about it.
Question: You were quoted in one story. That kind of surprised me because the last time I spoke to you, you were quite adamant that you weren’t going to do another one of those.
Thornton: Oh no. They always say ‘Is there going to be a sequel to Bad Santa?’ and you know, I mean, a long time ago they would take about, you know, we’re going to do a sequel to that but it was never serious. And they said ‘Would you do it?’ and I said out of all the movies I’ve done that was a lot of fun and maybe I would do a sequel if it ever came up and I made sense but I said I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.
Question: Oh they picked the bit out of the beginning and then cut the bit at the end out.
Thornton: Oh yeah well by now we know how it works. It’s like I would say ‘Fred’s an asshole but he’s really not’. ‘Fred’s an Asshole!’
Question: Did you just build rockets for your research or you just didn’t feel you needed to do that, or did you just get into his head without all that extra research?
Thornton: Yeah it’s not a technical movie. This movie is meant for entertainment. This is the kind of movie we grew up loving because you go in and it’s inspirational and you feel good when you come out. It is like a Field of Dreams or something, you know, it’s The Natural or whatever. This is really what you’re supposed to feel like and it’s not a movie to be, in other words, there’s no need for a lot of scrutiny on this movie because in this time of cynicism, it’s meant to just be one of those movies like they used to show during the depression when people would go in and they didn’t see a movie about I’ve only got one apple and a nickel left.
Question: Why do you think Hollywood doesn’t make a lot of films like this. Is it because it’s all about marketing and what they can market?
Thornton: I’ll tell you exactly why. What’s the biggest market? It’s under 25 right? Watch MTV and you will see exactly why they don’t like movies like this. You know, ‘No knock on MTV’ See that’s the advantage of hanging out with you guys, no cameras so I can say ‘No knock on MTV at all’.
Question: What else are you planning at the moment? Are you still doing music?
Thornton: Oh yeah. New record coming out May 8 called Beautiful Door, it’s on Universal New Door label. They always say your latest is your best but I promise you that this is a record I’ve been waiting to make. It’s what I’ve been trying to make.
Question: Does it reflect who you are now?
Thornton: Absolutely. No question about it. I even got a little political on this one. I mean not like Neil Young but it’s like there are about three or four anti-war songs on the record. It feels good to do an anti-war song.
Question: Regarding the, you’re not shy to talk about the current conflict, and I presume this is to do with the current conflict or just war in general?
Thornton: War in general but definitely inspired by this. Absolutely. No question about it.
Question: So is Mr Woodcock going to be the definitive asshole performance?
Thornton: It’s right up there. I told somebody earlier in the day it’s sort of like Bad Santa in gym shorts.
Question: Was it hard to get in and out of that spacesuit because I read somewhere it zips up on the side of something and …
Thornton: It zips up all over the place.
Question: Was it really difficult? It’s like the real ones?
Thornton: Yeah it is the real one. It’s an old mercury suit. It’s really hard to get into and the really difficult thing about it is even international superstars have to pee.
Question: Ten years ago you won an Oscar for Sling Blade. The Oscars are fast approaching. Any memories you can share about what it was like winning ten years ago?
Thornton: Yeah it was amazing because it was something that I had created and brought along and it was my thing and to get something made like that at all was almost impossible. The fact that it was made from the donut budget of most movies and the fact that it got that far and has since become iconic, which is amazing to me. I would never have expected that. I actually thought you guys would like that movie and the general public wouldn’t see it that much. That’s what I really thought. And it was so amazing to be there and you know mostly what I thought, aside from was the fact that my best buddy Dwight Yoakam was with me and he escorted my mother, who loves Dwight, and they’re like great friends, and just seeing them together and all this, I remember that very well. And then just feeling like part of this thing that you’d seen before. You know what I mean? It’s like you see Jimmy Stewart or whoever or, I was going to say Marlon Brandon but he didn’t go or something did he? Anyway but all this kind of thing, in other words being a part of history. Feeling like you’re the next in line for this thing and then after you there’ll be another generation and then another generation. It felt historical to me, I remember that. And the part that they talk about being a blur – for me the part that was a blur was actually being on the stage accepting it and what I said and, that I don’t remember much of, I mean I know Jodie Foster gave it to me. I remember that but I don’t know what I said. I didn’t talk very long because I was nervous, you know. I remember also thinking that the floor is like marble and the stairs and stuff and it just looks so slick and I don’t wear shoes like that every day. And they’re like brand new and you know how when you get brand new dress shoes? I mean gravel is slick on those things, you know what I mean? And I remember walking up the marble thing thinking ‘Just don’t let me fall down here’.
Question: So were you surprised in the past ten years that you have become this ‘international superstar’?
Thornton: Listen. I got a project for you I’m thinking about. Why don’t you have your guy call me. Then have your guy call him.